Album Review – Robbie Fulks – “Bluegrass Vacation”

photo: Scott Simontacchi

When you think of Robbie Fulks, you may think first of his rambunctious and attitudinal songs like “Fuck This Town” that skewers Nashville and the haircuts of Brooks & Dunn, or the comparatively sentimental “She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died),” or other songs released during the heyday of alt-country on labels like Bloodshot and Yep Roc that would go places mainstream country wouldn’t dare.

You really don’t think of Robbie Fulks as some bluegrass guy that might be in line as the next member of Special Consensus or something. Sure, bluegrass has always been a part of the Robbie Fulks sound. “Long I Ride” from his 2013 album Gone Away Backward might be Robbie’s best song out there, and it’s definitely bluegrass. But how is he really regarded in the bluegrass world?

Despite his punk country popularity, Fulks actually started out as a folk and bluegrass musician who was raised in the Blue Ridge of Virginia and the Piedmont of North Carolina. And after performing in the club scene in Greenwich Village and attending Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk, lo and behold, Robbie actually did spend some time in Special Consensus in 1987 as a flatpicking guitarist.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that after the implosion of Bloodshot Records and the pandemic pause, Robbie Fulks has emerged recording for Compass Records, and releasing a dedicated bluegrass set. Hearkening back to his earliest roots in both the sound and the inspiration for much of the material, Fulks has fully unplugged, roped in folks like Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, Ronnie McCoury, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Brown, and is taking us all on a Bluegrass Vacation.

I’ll be honest. I was a little worried when this album was first announced with its silly cover, and how the lead song “Longhair Bluegrass” reminiscing upon discovering Newgrass took a little of a lighthearted approach. Just how serious would Robbie Fulks take this business, and would it really be the full-blown bluegrass album from Fulks we’ve been waiting for?

Yes it is, and one the great things about this album is the variety of moods and tempos it touches, including quite serious ones. It’s entirely original too instead of padding itself with a bunch of covers and traditionals like bluegrass records can do. “Longhair Bluegrass” isn’t the only song that feels very personal to the Fulks story. All great bluegrass has a touch of reminiscing, and that’s what Fulks does on “Molly and the Old Man” and later “Nashville Blues” that could be considered his bluegrass version of his amplified “Fuck This Town.”

The album arguably reaches its nostalgic and emotional peak with “Angels Carry Me” about feeling like a disappointment to his father before finally “making it” on a big stage and proving his pursuit of music wasn’t just a fancy. You couple this with the song “Momma’s Eyes” about the onset of dementia, and this album comes with not just the enjoyment that bluegrass confers, but a weight and seriousness the subgenre sometimes misses in its emphasis on instrumentation and “back yonder” reminiscing.

There is also bluegrass for bluegrass sake with songs like “One Glass of Whiskey,” the hypersonic “Let The Old Dog In,” and a cool instrumental in “Silverlake Reel.” The song “Sweet Lil’ Cora-Mae” shows that Fulks can work in the vernacular of the bluegrass tradition with positive results, and the final song “Old Time Music Is Here To Stay” makes you wonder if this somewhat genre-jumping artist has found his permanent home.

“That electrified guitar I bought in ’84, sits back in the closet these days. And to watch the years unreeling the more I get to feeling old-time music’s here to stay,” Fulks sings while plucking a little clawhammer banjo in an otherwise empty studio.

So who knows, maybe the Bluegrass Vacation of Robbie Fulks will become a permanent one. And with the results of this album, it would be welcomed.

8/10

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